Egypt's Paradise for Lepers
An interesting article about a Biblical disease still existing in Egypt.
Behind a vale of trees lies the largest leper colony in the Middle East, a virtual oasis in Egypt for those who have been ostracised by society.
Launched at the beginning of the 1930s, the Abu Zaabal centre in the governorate of Qaliubiya, north of Cairo, hosts a hospital, pre-school, a prison, and the adjoining village of Abdel Moneim Riad. It is home to 3,000 people.
Even those who have recovered from the disease choose to live and raise their families at Abu Zaabal, rather than return to communities that have shunned them for their disfiguring affliction.
Leprosy, spread by a bacteria named mycobacterium leprae, can scar the flesh, destroy limbs and damage the nervous system.
"I was 16 when I arrived here. Today I am 64, with a wife and five kids," said Mohammad al-Sharqawi, wearing a tie and brown suit.
He fell in love at the hospital with a patient named Betaa and they have been married 20 years.
"I even gave birth, without any complications," said his wife, aged 40, whose mutilated hands fidget with her veil in order to hide her noseless face.
Sitting on mats in their modest home, they appear like any normal couple. They show off photos of their children. The eldest daughter is engaged to a young man, like her the son of a leper. They live in the colony but work elsewhere.
"Since we formed a partnership with the health ministry in 1979, we haven't had any case of infections and all the children here have been born healthy," explained Magdy Garas, a worker from the Catholic humanitarian group Caritas.
Abu Zaabal is a happy place. Old lepers mix with children at a concert held in the colony's pre-school. Some lepers tap the beat with their fingerless hands.
The hospital has 750 patients, male and female, who are treated with help from Caritas and the health ministry.
There are 10 detainees in the colony's prison, all of them lepers.
"One of them has been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing five people," said the hospital's director Ahmad al-Sokeby.
"Our life is here. There is nothing for us outside", said Layla Darwish, the grandmother of three children who live with their parents in Abu Zaabal.
Darwish arrived from Tanta , and she has never left. A creature of habit, she passes her days in the women's ward at the hospital, while her husband spends his time in one of the hospital's two male wings.
They choose to spend their time with fellow lepers even though they have a home in the adjoining village.
While the elderly stay in the confines of the colony, the younger generation splits its time between Abu Zaabal and the greater world.
Bassima Hussein Hassan, 31, has been treated at the hospital for 18 months. She divides her week between the hospital and her husband and children. Since her leprosy was caught in its early stages, she has been spared disfigurement and the social isolation that comes with the disease.
"As soon as I discovered I had leprosy, my family supported me," she said.
Such a blissful ending is hard to reconcile with a disease that has terrified humanity for centuries.
The disease's incubation period is about five years, but can take up to 20 years to develop. While not highly contagious, leprosy is transmitted via spray from the nose and mouth.
Leprosy ravaged the ancient civilisations of China, Egypt and India, with the first known case recorded in 600 BC. Due to the grotesque appearance of lepers, the afflicted have often been shunned by communities and families.
However, much has changed thanks to medical advances. Multi-drug therapy (MDT), endorsed by the World Health Organisation, has worked miracles since being introduced in 1981. The MDT can kill off the bacteria and cure those stricken with the illness.
Since 1985, 113 countries out of 122 countries where leprosy was classified as a problem have rid themselves of the disease.
Although there are nearly three million cases in the world, only 400,000 new cases were registered in 2004, according to the World Health Organisation.
In Egypt, leprosy has fallen from 60,000 cases in 1979 to 3,000 in 2005.